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Sunday, April 22, 2007
A mature Convey looks to take the next step

Kristian Dyer

Those early days, the baby face and pimples, the mop of hair and the uncertainty surrounding the much-hyped player, all seem so long ago. It's an image that Bobby Convey, now 23, still has difficulty shedding. With the Gold Cup and Copa America on tap for the national team this summer, it was supposed be a busy season for Convey who had hoped to be a part of the team, but a long-term knee injury and subsequent surgery has forced him to the sidelines. With his club team Reading guaranteed of staying in the Premiership, it was a decision he made with management's blessing to go under the knife, in the hope that he'd be ready for the start of next season.

The nagging knee concerns are not the only thing he has battled. For years, Convey has endured unreasonable expectations and a wave of criticism that few soccer players in this country have ever had to endure.

"I think that for me, there were always expectations that I was never going to achieve and my main goal was to just get better every year," said Convey. "I think I have done that ... I think the thing I learned from all of it was that there are going to be people that like you and there are going to be people that don't like you for what ever reasons."

While in MLS with D.C. United, Convey was expected to achieve great things, befitting his celebrated signing with the league at age 16. As the days of unrealized hopes turned into months and years, the jubilation over the native of Philadelphia's play for D.C. United and the national team soured. Convey, by all accounts, had failed to make the big leap in the way everyone had expected of him; many questioned his inclusion with the national team.

"In America too many people are in a hurry to anoint the 'American Pelé.' We saw that to some extent with Bobby," said Kevin Payne, the general manager of D.C. United and the man who drafted Convey. "Very few people understand what it takes for a young man to succeed right away as a professional, or that the biggest challenges are usually mental and emotional.

"Soccer, by its nature, is perhaps harder than other sports in that regard, since there are no timeouts, and very few substitutions, so a player has to learn to make dozens of decisions very quickly. That almost always takes players a few years to adapt to. There are exceptions -- Pelé and Maradona for instance -- and there are individual moments in matches when a player as talented as Bobby would do things that we would marvel at. But learning to manage a 90-minute game is a challenge for young players, and Bobby was no exception."

It was a unique relationship that Payne and Convey shared; the D.C. United general manager opened up his home to his young midfielder, adopting the player into the fold as a member of his family. "Bobby will always have a place in our family's heart -- he was so young and innocent when he came to our home," remembers Payne. "It's been fun to watch him grow up and succeed. I think he's going to get better and better. I certainly expect him to feature in the U.S. national team for years to come. We'll always be rooting for him."

Gone are the days where Convey would carpool with the Payne's to practice. Now, a veteran for both club and country, he has matured and is beginning to realize the expectations he has placed on himself and those that others have burdened him with. "Playing at this level has added a different mentality to my game because you always have to be ultra focused," said Convey on his transition to England from MLS. "When you play against the best players in the world, in the best league in the world, you realize what you need to do to improve."

Despite the swirl of questions surrounding his then club-record transfer fee to Reading ($1.5 million in July 2004) and the rocky start to his English career, manager Steve Coppell continued to pull Convey aside and encourage the young player. "I learned that if you work hard and set goals for yourself, you can achieve them," reminisces Convey. "There are always ups and downs but you always need to keep a level head. I never thought a year ago that I would have started for the national team in the World Cup especially when I wasn't even dressing for Reading at the time."

Labeling himself as "naive" at the time of his transfer, Convey (who was 21 years old when he moved to England) didn't expect the culture shock to be as drastic as it was. "I tell everyone that they speak English, but it is a totally different culture," said Convey. "I came back in the summer a better player because I had a little bit of a break for the first time in awhile. I knew that I had signed a three-year contract and was going to see that contract out whether I played or not."

The summer of 2005 revitalized a player who was at the low of his professional career. It was at this make-or-break juncture that Convey emerged a new player; no longer the fresh-faced youth but now a man with a mission, "I guess the main thing I learned from Coppell is that soccer is just a game and that you always need to keep a level head," said Convey on those moments of struggle. "Whether you succeed or fail, tomorrow is another day. He [Coppell] is very level headed and understands that players have lives and he realizes there is a lot of pressure to perform well every week."

His relationship with former national team coach Bruce Arena is legendary and a relationship that Convey regards as "complete respect" for his former national team coach. Many felt that Convey undeservedly received call-ups from Arena over more deserving players, but the time with the national team proved beneficial for a player who figured into last summer's World Cup scheme for the squad. Terming the World Cup experience for the United States a "disappointment," Convey said, "We had higher expectations of ourselves and we knew we had a hard group but should have gotten out of it. The biggest disappointment was the fact that we still had a chance if we won against Ghana to advance."

Now, with interim national team coach Bob Bradley at the helm, it is time for Convey to step up once again and prove himself all over again. The new challenge of fitting into Bradley's national team equation is one that he relishes. "I think it is a changing of the guard right now as a lot of the older players are gone now and younger players have to step up," said Convey. "I am definitely putting my name forward as someone who wants to lead the team."

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is the soccer editor for New York City Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.


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